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How to Stand Up For Yourself — And Your Family — At Work

The pandemic raises the stakes on work confrontation. Here's what you should keep in mind.

Your boss has it out for you. It’s the looks that you’re getting and the projects you aren’t. You know something is wrong at work, you just know it. You have to push back, for both yourself and your family. But it can’t start by firing off an email with your complaints. It is your job and it’s still a shaky economy. So, how do you tactfully stand up for yourself and figure out the problem, without burning an unnecessary bridges?

The difficulty, aside from office politics or career risk, starts with defining what unfair is, says Catherine Shea, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s a normally tough discovery, complicated by the pandemic, where people haven’t been able to rest and communication is done over Zoom, text, email, everything but in person. “We’re tired, stressed out and anxious,” she says. “No one is good at processing information in these negative states.”

In other words, it’s easy for slights to get magnified, and magnified more when you have time to only think. “We create a story in our head,” says Debra Roberts, a relationship expert, communications specialist, and author of The Relationship Protocol.

It’s in this dynamic where you have to decide what to do. Your suspicion might be correct, or it could be easily explained away. The key is to find out and then take the most productive, least contentious approach in order to make the situation better and to give you control over your career path.. 

Widening Your Lens 

Your first obstacle if often your internal setting. Faced with a problem, some people excuse it away as no big deal and do nothing, and do this every time something comes up. It’s fear that’s controlling the decision-making, says Danna Greenberg, professor of organizational behavior at Babson College and co-author of Maternal Optimism

It’s important to ask yourself, “What’s the price of not standing up?” The question gets you to think about issues like less career development, lost promotions and income, and less time with your family. By naming the costs, you might realize that they outweigh the fear, she says, which is enough motivation to say something. 

On the other end of the “unfair spectrum” is the desire to seek justice. The problem is not chutzpah, but blindness. You’re working on one interpretation, yours, when there are many.

Whatever moves you, you still have to perform some discovery in order to build your case, all guided by the question, “What’s your proof?” Shea says. You start by looking at your assignments, salary and hours and examine if that adds up to getting shafted. Follow that by finding someone comparable in tenure, education, position and see how you stack up. 

You want to consult with one or two level-headed confidants who know the players involved, and ask “Am I missing something?,” Greenberg suggests. Those confidants might confirm your feelings while also giving a bigger perspective, such as company-wide problems or that a certain manager “has been like that with everyone.” Or they might answer a question that you should have already asked, “Am I being too sensitive?,” Roberts says.

All this plays out against the pandemic. It’s left everyone stretched in order to survive. Bosses included. It’s hard to know what people are dealing with at any time. It’s more so now. “This is the year when everyone feels they’re being treated unfairly,” Shea says. “No one’s life is proceeding how they wanted it.”

And that brings up the need for empathy. Greenberg advises that in the face of unfairness, ask yourself, “Why might this be happening?” By sitting down for a few minutes, you can list possibilities: The company is pivoting. Boss is new. Boss is worrying about his or her family. These possibilities don’t have to be true, but you could imagine rather than a sinister plan, what happened might have been part of a bad day, week, or month for someone, Roberts says. 

Moving — Not Stumbling —  Forward

After taking the above steps, your conclusion might still be: I gotta say something. But with your prep work, you’re relying on data, not emotions.

“To talk about fairness in the workplace comes across like schoolyard whining,” Greenberg says. Shea adds that bringing up the unfair charge guarantees defensiveness, since, “People like to believe they’re moral and fair.” 

It also helps to remember your goal. If you want a fight, you’ll get one. But if you want a discussion, that can be had as well, and when start by giving the benefit of the doubt, tension can dissipate even more, Roberts says. 

Still, when you meet, say directly that you need to have a difficult conversation while stressing your loyalty and desire to have a good relationship. Then lay out your findings, with the intent of wanting to contribute more, finding a good problem to solve, and not trying to undo anyone’s promotion or reorganize teams. “Set out what the future will look like rather than lament the past,” Greenberg says.

Realize, though, that it’s common to believe that you’re being undervalued, so it’s good to dust off the old LinkedIn profile, check in with a recruiter to gauge not just the market, but your market. You might realize that it’s time to leave. Even if you don’t, “People are more likely to change if you have power, and an outside offer gives you power,” Shea says. 

Just be prepared for what you might hear. If you’ve made it into a conversation with your boss, and ask, “Why?”, the boss could tell you, Greenberg says, and it could be that you haven’t shown the leadership chops. 

Before you respond, consider what was said, and ask for advice on how to get to where you want to be. It shows confidence, humility and a desire to grow. 

“Too many people go into this conversation with the assumption that they are right and the other person is wrong,” Greenberg says. “If you stay open-minded, you are bound to learn why this situation has emerged, which will help you get more of what you want from your career in the future.”